With his outrageous wardrobe including oversized mirrored top hats, leg-swallowing knee-high platforms, sequinned star-shaped shades and matching star-shaped bass, William Earl ‘Bootsy’ Collins is funk personified. So he should be: he had a hand in its invention.
Alongside George Clinton, he pioneered the ’70s psychedelic funk movement playing for the two P-Funk projects, Parliament and Funkadelic, and later his own Bootsy’s Rubber Band. He’s always been playfully extrovert, and like Clinton he’s explored the world of pseudonyms to the full – but whether he’s Casper The Funky Ghost or Bootzilla, The World’s Only Rhinestone Rockstar Monster Of A Doll, the man behind the mask remains the same, and funk is most certainly his game.
He began his quest to spread the word in Cincinnati group the Pacemakers in the late ’60s, but it was in 1970 – when James Brown sacked his entire band and needed to replace them at short notice – that Bootsy and his brother ‘Catfish’ Collins got the call and hotfooted it out to meet James Brown to help form the JB’s. ‘I was more nervous about getting on the plane than playing with James Brown,’ Bootsy recalls. Before that fortuitous day, he’d never travelled by air before. As for the playing side of things, however, he is quick to elaborate.
‘I wasn’t nervous about it at all, because we were all geared up for whatever. It didn’t make no difference. That’s what our whole life was about… playing! You get an opportunity to play with James Brown… was I scared? Oh no, I’m looking forward to it. It was like, what we don’t know we’re going to learn quick, so we was all ready for that. It was the most exciting moment, probably in our lives, that moment there, because it led to all the rest of it.’
Having contributed the bottom end to some of the most important records ever made – Get Up, Sex Machine, Super Bad – his tenure with the Godfather Of Soul would come to an unglamorous end. While flying high on LSD, Bootsy burst out laughing in the face of James Brown during one of his post-show lectures about uniforms and performance, and the original JD’s were no more.
Free to take his vision of funk to the next level, Bootsy’s next collaboration was to be a partnership made in groove heaven; Bootsy (and his brother) joined George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic in 1972. Now, with his Space Bass in hand, Collins finally had the opportunity to unleash his inimitable musical personality on the world. He soon became a major contributor to the P-Funk sound. Imagine being on the tour bus when that particular entourage spread their wings.
In contrast to James Brown’s strict dictatorial regime, and inspired by artists like Jimi Hendrix and the emerging music and fashion of the early ’70s, things took a new turn. ‘It was so different,’ Bootsy smiles. ‘It was the kind of different that I wanted. We got a chance to act the fool, dress the way we wanted to onstage, stay up all night, meet the girls, take the girls with us in the car to the next gig. All the things that a young cat would dream of doing, we did it. That was the best time.’ We bet it was.
After a successful solo career funking his way through three decades, this year Bootsy releases his latest album, Tha Funk Capital Of The World. It’s his first new studio album of original funk material since 2002’s Play With Bootsy, and it’s a welcome return, particularly with its inspired 3D holographic artwork. Well, what else did you expect?
The guestlist is brimming with talent too, whether it’s hip-hop legends Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg or Chuck D, the instantly recognisable patter of Samuel L Jackson, Buckethead’s leftfield Les Paul quirks, Bobby Womack’s sweet and soulful vocals or P-Funksters George Clinton and Bernie Worrell – it’s a truly incredible cast. Even Jimi Hendrix magically features from beyond the grave in the marvellous Mirrors Tell Lies. ‘When Mascot approached us about a record deal,’ says Bootsy, ‘I was like, “Yeah, as long as I can do the record the way I want to do it, then let’s do it.” It’s been a dream come true.’
Famous for his Godzilla-toned solo-style bass licks and his unashamed use of effects such as envelope filters, synths and fuzz sounds, Bootsy’s four-string innovations redefined what an electric bass could sound like. So what basses are responsible for this all-fizzing, all-thumping, all-slapping funk spectacular?
‘I pretty much use the new Warwick Infinity bass that they developed for me last year,’ Bootsy expands. ‘Pretty much all the basic bass stuff that’s on the record, I kinda used that. Then for the solo stuff – with all the fuzz – I used the Space Bass ’cos that’s kinda what it does… all those different sounds. On the JB’s type song, Still The Man, I used the Infinity. It’s more of a hollow-bodied bass with the f-holes in it and it’s just got this really round kinda old James Brown kinda sound. Once you listen to that song, it kind of reminds you of that sound, you know, what we were getting back in the day.’
Just as much a part of his all-encompassing sound are the multitude of stompboxes he has at his disposal – particularly the Mutron III Envelope Filter. These days he uses a vast array of different pedals to find the vibe he needs for the particular song.
‘I tried the MXR Envelope Filter. I used that on a couple of songs and it just sounds great! It’s a take-off of the Mutron, but it’s even simpler. They’ve designed it that way, you can get to the sound very easily. So I’m using that one, the Mutron of course, and then one other one is good, the DOD. It’s a green box. That one is a nice one too. Then there’s another pedal that’s really great by Chunk Systems called the Octavius Squeezer! It’s got some amazing sounds. Then an Akai Deep Impact too. You can get a lot of different synthesiser sounds out of it, and I used that quite a lot on this record.’
So, you’ve got yourself a Warwick Bootsy Collins Signature bass and you’ve put it through an envelope filter, but you’re still not quite sounding as funky as the man himself? As you’d expect, it’s not quite that straightforward. He expands on how he gets his unique sounds…
‘The Space Bass has four outputs so I go into four different pedals into four different amps. So whatever line I’m playing, it’ll track a synthesiser line, the straight bass line, the Mutron line, and then whatever else. If I get a fuzz, or whatever else, all of those get their own track and it’s a one-performance kind of thing. Just like on stage, whatever pedal you push will come out of whichever amp and speakers it’s plugged into, so it gives you this whole array of sounds… and you’re wondering where the FUNK it’s coming from!’
Like his peers, Larry Graham and Stanley Clarke, Bootsy’s name is synonymous with techniques such as slap bass. Since their emergence, these styles have now taken on a life of their own, and Bootsy has become close friends with today’s prominent four-string pioneers – players like Victor Wooten.
‘I just stood there and watched him while we were in the studio,’ he remembers. ‘I can’t even think about how I could even touch the way he’s doing that. They just motivate me now, like showing me where bass can go. The days of straight basslines coming from a bass look like they may be nearly over. There’s a whole new approach coming in.’
Ever the forward-thinker, Bootsy has recently set up Bootsy’s Funk University, an online bass guitar school pulling together the most accomplished bassists on the planet to share their wisdom. You can access lectures, lessons, discussions, learn techniques and approaches to funk music from the masters of the genre. ‘A lot of the young cats don’t know about where bass came from, and that’s what the funk university is all about.’
When it comes to the bass and funk in general, Bootsy’s boundary-pushing influence is ever present, and on the strength of his new record we’re sure he’s the gift that’ll keep on giving.